Beyond  /  Discovery

Why the Confederate Flag Flew During World War II

As white, southern troops raised the battle flag, they showed that they were fighting for change abroad—but the status quo at home.

The white troops who raised the Confederate flag during World War II argued that they were honoring the military service of their forefathers. “In its day, this flag stood for much and waved over the heads of the same type of men that made America great,” the Charlotte Observer argued. “Deep in the hearts of all Americans, the Confederacy now is merely a part of ‘One nation indivisible.’”

Not all Americans agreed. When Army Lieutenant General Simon Buckner Jr., himself the son of a Confederate general, saw a Marine unit flying the flag at the battle of Okinawa, he ordered it removed. “Americans from all over are involved in this battle,” he said.

For black Americans especially, the Confederate flag was a symbol of decades of racism, hate, and white supremacy. They fought against it being displayed before, during, and after the war. Before Pearl Harbor, for example, the Baltimore Afro-American successfully protested a plan to use the flag as the insignia of Army quartermasters stationed in Virginia at the base named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The embrace of the Confederate flag by white troops, politicians, and civilians made it clear to black Americans that many of their fellow citizens understood the goals of the Second World War in very different terms. As black Americans fought a Double Victory campaign over fascism abroad and racism at home, most white Americans understood the war only to be about defeating the Nazis and Japanese military, a “single V” abroad and the status quo at home. Edward Moe, a federal investigator who surveyed racial attitudes during the war, found that many white people believed that World War II was about preserving things “as they have been in America.” “White folks would rather lose the war than give up the luxury of race prejudice,” NAACP Secretary Roy Wilkins quipped.

While white officers and enlisted men had no difficulty displaying the Confederate flag at home or overseas, Senator Millard Tydings, a Maryland Democrat, wanted to ensure they could do so officially. In 1943, he introduced a bill to allow Army units to carry Confederate battle streamers. “The sons of those who fought on the southern side in the Civil War ... at least should have the right to carry these streamers as a matter of maintaining military morale,” he argued. The Chicago Defender, a leading black newspaper, struck back immediately, calling the bill a “master stroke of hypocrisy” that proposed to have “American troops carrying the banner under which bitter war was waged for the perpetuation of slavery, into a so-called fight for democracy.” Among Tydings’s opponents, the Defender reported, there was talk of amending the bill to call for German Americans “to enter battle under the swastika, right next to the old Confederacy’s Stars and Bars.”